US space shuttle takes step toward liftoff
Cappe Canaveral (Fla), May 13: Nine months after its troubled last flight, shuttle Discovery was hauled out of its hangar today and taken to the Kennedy Space Center's assembly building for final preparations before moving to the launch pad.
NASA is aiming to launch Discovery in July and end a three-year, 1.5 billion dollars effort to resume regular shuttle service to the half-built International Space Station.
Launches were suspended following the fatal 2003 Columbia accident and again after the troubled July 2005 liftoff of Discovery on the first shuttle flight since the disaster.
Anchored on top of a large flatbed transporter, Discovery was backed out of its processing hangar at the Florida space center.
Workers lined the pavement to gawk at the 122-foot spaceship.
Less than 30 minutes later, Discovery nosed into the assembly building where, it will be paired with a newly redesigned fuel tank and two solid booster rockets.
''I'm ecstatic,'' said vehicle manager Stephanie Stilson. ''This is what the team looks forward to.'' Roll-out to the launch pad is targeted for May 19.
Final flight clearance, however, is pending the results of wind tunnel tests that NASA hopes will prove the revamped fuel tank is safe to fly. NASA needs to launch Discovery between July 1 and July 20 or face another postponement until late August.
The US space agency plans about 16 more shuttle flights before the ships are retired in 2010.
NASA's primary safety upgrade since the Columbia accident is intended to prevent the fuel tank's foam insulation from breaking off during liftoff and striking the orbiter's delicate heat-resistant tiles and carbon wing panels.
The heat shield is needed to protect the vehicle from searing temperatures during atmospheric re-entry.
A chunk of foam debris hit Columbia's wing during launch and punched a hole in its left wing. As the shuttle attempted to return to Earth 16 days later, superheated gases blasted into the damaged wing and destroyed the shuttle. Seven astronauts were killed.
''Hopefully we're on our way to launch,'' NASA's deputy director of shuttle processing Rita Willcoxon said.